Sunday, May 29, 2011

Row Row Row Your Boat

Rowing has a long and respected history in Vancouver, with the Vancouver Rowing Club itself founded in 1886, the same year as the City, and both entities celebrating their 125th birthday this year.  Pleasantly situated at the entrance to Stanley Park and at the end of Coal Harbour, experienced and novice beginners alike can be seen most afternoons as they carefully and methodically scull (2 oars) or sweep (1 oar) in perfect synchronization either singly, in pairs, fours or eights. The club has produced its share of Commonwealth and Olympic medal winners over the years, and there always seems to be a fresh batch of recruits eager to learn the technique and get some serious exercise in the process.

Vancouver Rowing Club photo by Junie Quiroga
Rowing seems to lend itself readily to racing and, while the actual history of the sport is a little sketchy, we do know the first Oxford Cambridge race took place in 1829 and since then the rivalry between countries, colleges and clubs has never let up.  In the lower mainland alone there are more than 17 official rowing clubs.  While owing to all the boat and airplane traffic the practice area of the Vancouver Rowing Club isn't a practical location for regattas, there's one taking place nearly every weekend somewhere else.

It's not just humans who are fascinated with rowing either.  If you look closely from the seawall you will often see one of the local seals keeping an eye on the rowers.  One seal in particular has been given the name of "coach" because of its habit of popping up around the rowers and seeming to offer advice.  And while I'm swimming in English Bay I often encounter another group of rowers, the False Creek Rowing Club, and their mascot "Ellie" a dog who rides around in the coach's dinghy keeping an eye on things and generally having a great time skimming over the water.

But rowers are only one group of human powered boaters racing in the Vancouver waters, with the paddling community being perhaps the most visible, particularly the Dragon Boaters. Dragon Boat racing has a much more ancient history than rowing, going back 2,000 years in China but was only introduced to Vancouver at the 1986 Expo. Since then it has exploded in popularity with the annual Dragon Boat festival now drawing nearly 200 teams worldwide to compete in a colourful, multicultural event with thousands of spectators ringing the shores of False Creek.

The obvious difference between the rowers and the paddlers is that one group is facing forward and the other is facing backwards as they ply their oars.  As to which method is faster it's hard to say.  A quick review of the Olympic records for paddling a kayak or canoe on a 1,000 metre course is somewhere between 3.5 - 4.0 minutes but, on a 2,000 metre rowing course the times are between 5.5. - 6.5 minutes.

It's a bit like comparing apples to oranges but suffice it to say either method is right up there with the 1,500 metre run which has an Olympic record of approximately 3.5 minutes. Why anyone would need to row or paddle that fast is beyond me unless of course they were being chased by something.

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